Modern Beat: Tom Waits
In Issue One, David S Wills looked at the songwriter Pete Doherty as a modern day Beatnik, with the promise of finding another for Issue Two. He lied. There was no Modern Beats in Issue Two. But here, belatedly, he brings you the second instalment of the Modern Beats section… This time it’s Tom Waits, legendary pianist and Beat aficionado.
When I was in California, I met a man named Dale. He was an interesting character, who changed from day to day, influenced my life, and then left in a few weeks, leaving a trail of confusion and hurt feeling. What grabbed me when I first met him was his appearance – he looked absolutely, one hundred per cent the spitting image of Tom Waits. It was staggering. And boy could he talk. The man had spent his life on the road, wandering from odd job to odd job, all over America. He reminded me in character of Jack Kerouac, and not just for the good points. He seemed Byronic, mired in guilt and with a ferocious battle against alcoholism and abandonment issues. He was a womaniser and a smooth-talking environmental crusader.
He was my inspiration for this article, a link in my head between the Beats, whom I’d gone to California to chase, and Tom Waits, whose music was so often my own theme tune.
Tom Waits is often viewed as an heir to the Beat Generation, and indeed he acknowledges the strong influence the Bets, and in particular Burroughs and Kerouac, have had upon his work. It’s not hard to see in Waits’ work the musical influences of the bop artists held in such importance by the Beats, as well as the lyrical significance of urban, Cold War America, a central tenant of Beat literature.
Elvis Costello quipped that around the release of ‘Swordfishtrombones’ and ‘Raindogs’, Waits shed an image that was entirely built upon the legends of the Beat Generation, and partially on those who influenced the Beats. He called it “this hipster thing he’d taken from Kerouac and Bukowski, and the music was tied to some Beat/ Jazz thing.” Indeed, many remember meeting Waits or even seeing him perform, looking as though he’d just stepped off a freight train, after years of footloose wandering.
But it wasn’t just his appearance that smacked of a Beat influence. Michael Melvoin considered Waits’ lyrics to be high quality poetry. “I felt I was in the presence of one of the great Beat poets,” he said. Bones Howe said Waits performing was like “Allen Ginsberg with a really, really good band.”
“I guess everybody reads Kerouac at some point in their life. Even though I was growing up in Southern California, he made a tremendous impression on me. It was 1968. I started wearing dark glasses and got myself a subscription to Downbeat … I was a little late. Kerouac died in 1969 in St Petersburg, Florida, a bitter old man.
“I became curious about style more than anything else. I discovered Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti … Ginsberg still comes up with something every now and again.”
But perhaps his music wasn’t just inspired by reading too much Beat poetry. Perhaps it was more to do with a shared heritage and environment. Waits didn’t love jazz because the Beats loved jazz, and likewise he didn’t write about the city just because they wrote about the city. With the exception of Gary Snyder, the Beats were pretty much all city-dwellers, left disaffected by a cold and desolate world. At night there were no stars or owls in the distance; it was neon light, sirens, 24hr stores, and a world that refused to sleep. These things are evident anywhere in the annals of Beat literature, as in the lyrics of Tom Waits, who conjures up a world of hookers, waitresses and truckers after the fall of darkness.
A 1975 Melodymaker article says Waits had “a continuing fascination with the ephemeral ecstasies previously explored by such writers as Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti [and] Allen Ginsberg.”
The influence didn’t just stop with reading Kerouac or sharing the same heartless world, however, as Waits eyed the poetry readings that made Ginsberg famous. The Beats were always associated with jazz, but jazz wasn’t just their influence. Many Beat poets – Ginsberg being the most famous, of course – used jazz as the background to their readings. It didn’t distract from the words, but instead brings out the words in a special light. Likewise, Waits frequently performed alone or with a light jazz accompaniment.
The 1957 album, ‘Kerouac/Allen’ helped influence Waits, as it featured Kerouac telling stories with Steve Allen playing the piano. It’s not hard to listen to Waits and see the connection.
“The first time I heard any spoken word that I was really impressed with was an album called ‘Kerouac/Allen’ – Steve Allen & Jack Kerouac and he talked while Steve Allen played some stuff and he just talked over the top of it and it was real, real effective – I had never heard anything like it”
Waits is frequently asked about Kerouac, and he claims to have read everything of his, including all the articles hidden away in skin mags and other such publications. In 1979 he told New Music Express that he dreamed about Kerouac and that Kerouac was his hero, even years after discovering the author. Kerouac was obvious a massive influence on the art of Waits, but whenever ask, offers a glimpse of his literary predecessors, who include Corso, Ferlinghetti, Lord Buckley and Ken Nordine. But it always came back to Kerouac, and reading On the Road at eighteen: “It spoke to me. I couldn’t believe that somebody’d be making words that felt like music, that didn’t have any music in it, but had music all over it.”
But we shouldn’t get too carried away with the connections, no matter how obvious they are. We don’t want to get our asses kicked…
A lot of people when they talk to me, they talk about Kerouac, and get this impression that I’m trying to recreate the beat scene or some bullshit. Pure folly. I think it’s redundant, and I think it just shows their own stupidity.
Of course, one could claim any number of late twentieth century artists to be heirs of the Beat Generation, such was the impact upon the culture held by these writers, but Waits is unique in the extent of his collaboration, and of course the fact that he is still active today and still carrying the Beat torch.
Whereas Doherty, as explained in Issue One, maintains a Beat ethos and shares a similar style and line of literary and musical influence to the Beats, Waits’ connection is far more direct. In 1987, Waits was involved with William S Burroughs and Nick Cave in releasing ‘Smack my Crack’, a spoken word album, released through Giorno Poetry Systems.
A year later, theatre director Robert Wilson approached Waits with the idea of aligning with Burroughs to create The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets. The play showed at the Thalia Theatre in Hamburg, in 1990, and has since toured Europe and America. Burroughs wrote the story, based on a German folktale, while Waits wrote and performed the music and lyrics, released on a highly successful album of the same name.